A spectacular example of the bonsai art

Bioart in the fourth dimension: David Martinez Moreno

David Moreno reached out us to share his excitement about the color changing flower project in the context of his own passion for bringing together tradition and progress. David works with bonsai – the miniaturised and trees many consider an ancient Japanese art –  and we’re excited to share his guest blog post about old and new with you. David is an Art Historian, Artist, Bonsai Expert, Bio hacker and Natural Philosopher; fascinated by naturalism as cultural taste.

When we speak of Bonsai, we think of it belonging to a set of ancient Japanese traditions like Kabuki Theater, Kimono Confection or Sumo Wrestling. It might surprise you to learn that crafting Bonsai Masterpieces wouldn’t be possible without biotechnology.

One of the first references we have of Bonsai in history is the text Tsurezuregusa by Yoshida Kenk?. The c. 1331 text details the reflections of an emperor’s courtier regarding his fondness for potted plants. The courtier collected curiously twisted trees from the mountains and cultivated them in pots. This appreciation for what he described as “each a unique oddity” is an attribute still cherished in contemporary Bonsai; an admiration of nature’s bursts of creativity.

More than 1600 years later, the common practice of Bonsai today involves advanced horticultural techniques that allow massive trees to live in tiny shallow pots, using versatile wire to give shape to its branches. Similar to dog breeding, Japanese Bonsai Masters have bred tree species, for almost a century, selecting desirable aesthetic qualities, like fissured bark, smaller leaf size, shorter spans between leaves, and various colors of flower or leaf. They have even bred for characteristics not present in wild trees like the development of a massive root bases.

The ingenuity of Bonsai Masters that brought together all those desired characteristics into a single organism is achieved through grafting, a form of low-tech biotechnology. [ed note: in grafting, plant material with different qualities is merged by allowing two tissues to grow together.] The master grafts a “uniquely odd” trunk with branches from another plant which display desirable foliage at the right places and attaches hardy and even looking roots from yet another plant where needed. The result is a DNA chimera, a single organism with multiple genomes.

Spreading roots pool around a bonsai sculpture

Spreading roots pool around a bonsai sculpture

Through grafting, a low-Tech biotechnology, Bonsai becomes a DNA chimera, a single organism with multiple genomes.

Now, Contemporary Bonsai is more than a relic of nature’s invention.  The bonsai master’s intent to improve upon the aesthetics of nature, makes Bonsai one of the first objects to become an archetype of Nature as Culture. With the right care, Bonsai is virtually immortal; and as a consequence they gain cultural relevance from the accumulation of meanings and history through their constant immersion in human society

The intent to improve the aesthetics of nature in Bonsai, makes them an archetype of Nature as Culture.

The concept of Nature as Culture is extremely relevant as the 21st century’s biotechnological advances prompt renewed consideration of our relationship with nature. Like the courtier’s fondness for small twisted trees, in the West there was a similar phenomenon sometimes referred as the Wunderkammer (or cabinet of curiosities).  These exhibitions were often the beginnings of Natural History Collections, selecting and displaying diverse objects, most of the times marveling at what nature could “do”. Then, there was a separation of what nature does and what humanity does. To this day, the main distinction between Artifice and Nature is still -what is “man-made” and what is “not made”.

I spent the last two years of my life in Japan, allowing myself to deeply immerse into the bonsai world. Despite 14 years of experience with Bonsai, I didn’t really understand the deep footprint that biotechnology has in the creation of Japanese masterpieces until my stay in Japan. The dominant philosophy in western bonsai clubs promotes the respect for the natural shape of the tree, and argues that nature is wiser. In contrast, Japanese Bonsai Masters seek to improve the natural shape of the tree. Ironically, global bonsai enthusiasts look up to Japanese Bonsai because their trees seem “more natural looking”.

The division between Nature and Culture is artificial. Furthermore, the notion of “Nature” is defined by Culture.

The division between Nature and Culture is artificial. The notion of “Nature” is defined by Culture. More than that, through culture (art, science, etc.) we are able to make nature better; because the judgment of quality is man-made, there is no “better” nor moral structure outside of Culture. Bonsai is viewed more “natural” compared to an untouched or undeveloped potted tree because Bonsai are always lush, healthy*, their flowers bloom in time for the exhibitions, and their branches are balanced in strength, so that no weaker parts of the tree die as a consequence of another branch’s vigor, hence these miniature trees are very “alive”.

Is nature ever this symmetrical, this healthy?

Is nature ever this symmetrical, this healthy?

Bonsai is at the same time a man-made artifact and natural organism. These DNA chimeras bridge the division of Nature and Culture. That is why Bonsai belongs to the group of biotechnological endeavors, like color-changing flowers, that set off a necessary discussion on how we apprehend biotechnology in modern society.

At this time it is necessary to re-negotiate our relationship with Nature, with the knowledge that we are part of nature. I consider our action, right or wrong, also natural. I believe the function and purpose of color-changing flowers, Bonsai, and other aesthetic biotechnological endeavors is to breakdown the idea that what we do is separated in a moral (good or bad) or qualitative (better or worse) way to nature, and pave the way for a deeper integration of biotechnology into society.

* The idea that bonsai is weakened to keep them small is false. On the contrary their health is carefully cultivated to keep them alive for long periods of time.

Thank you for speaking with us David! To learn more about David Martinez Moreno and his work, visit http://davidmartinezmoreno.com 

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